The paragons change from generation to generation, but there’s always a handful of players in every sport who symbolize the mastery of a certain skill or trait: Magic Johnson’s unprecedented court vision; Nolan Ryan’s physics-defying velocity; Joe Montana’s legendary poise under pressure. The NFL’s current talent-defining stars have a ways to go to reach the icon status achieved by the players above, but a few stand out as representatives for some of football’s foundational skills and techniques. From off-script playmaking and savvy route running to elusiveness in the open field and defensive instincts, the players below possess a superlative talent that separates them from their peers. Here are the NFL’s skill-set poster boys in a few key categories.
Sandlot Improvisation: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes
Quarterbacks need to be able to play from the pocket and within an offense’s structure to consistently win in the NFL. Mahomes certainly checks that box. He mixes top-tier accuracy with elite arm strength and sound decision-making, and the newly minted $500 million man has proved to be the perfect quarterback to run Andy Reid’s wide-open, high-octane passing offense. It’s just a bonus, then, that Mahomes is also the league’s most absurdly talented improviser.
Last year, Mahomes showed he can escape pressure to keep plays alive while playing through knee and ankle injuries. He regularly beat defenses with both his legs and his rocket arm in out-of-structure wizardry. His highlight reel brings a little bit of everything: broken tackles, improbable escapes from the pocket, point-guard-like field vision, ludicrous no-look jump throws, and unbelievable displays of arm strength and accuracy on the move.
With most quarterbacks, sandlot-style improvisation is a high-variance exercise that tends to produce more negative plays than positive ones. With Mahomes, it’s the opposite; it’s almost like he thrives in chaos, and he always manages to see two or three moves ahead of his opponent.
Runners-up: Ravens, Seahawks, and Texans fans, please put down your pitchforks―I’ll concede that this was easily the most difficult category on the list to judge. We’re lucky to live in a golden age of incredible improvisational quarterbacks, with Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson each giving Mahomes a run for his money in this spot. Jackson regularly does what seems to be the impossible in eluding tacklers; Wilson has long been a Houdini-like escape artist and big-play creator outside the pocket; and with Watson, no play ever seems truly dead. Mahomes got the nod here, though, because of his complete skill set, which combines escapability as a runner, unmatched arm strength, and an innate knack for knowing where to attack the defense when everything breaks down.
Crafty Route Running: Chargers WR Keenan Allen
Allen uses a mix of hesitation moves, head fakes, and deft footwork to get off the line of scrimmage and create separation at the top of his stem. The Chargers star fell in the draft around concerns about his speed (he registered a 4.71-second 40-yard dash), but that has yet to be a problem for the 28-year-old veteran. Allen is like a blur getting in and out of his breaks, relying on incredible short-area quickness and teaching-tape techniques to keep defenders guessing his destination.
Allen relies on a few go-to moves to get open. He has a devastating hesitation move that keeps defenders off-balance and he combines that with razor-sharp cuts that leave them in the dust. You can see those two traits in action on this simple out route against the Chiefs, in which Allen easily defeats coverage out of the right slot.
Allen is a shrewd technician when it comes to head and shoulder fakes, regularly getting defenders turned around mid-route. On this matchup with Darius Slay, he beats the press, gets into his route up the seam, and turns his shoulders and head to the right―signaling to the defender in trailing coverage that he’s expecting the ball to the inside. At the last second, though, he turns back and runs to the outside. Slay overplays the route to the inside and is quickly out of position to defend the out route.
Allen is incredibly agile for a big receiver, too. He’s not the fastest guy in the world (even he admits that), but he can stop and turn on a dime—a talent that helps him dispatch pesky defenders.
Runners-up: This is a highly competitive group, and Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Adam Thielen could all challenge for the throne. But Allen gets the nod because of this category’s descriptive name: There might be stronger, or more precise route runners in the league, but Allen is the craftiest of the bunch.
Contested Pass Catching: Lions WR Kenny Golladay
The ability to separate is an important skill for any receiver, but in reality it’s not all that common for any NFL pass catcher to get himself wide open downfield. Typically, the windows that NFL quarterbacks throw into are pretty small, and the receivers who can create just enough separation from defenders late in their routes provide incredible value to their teams. In Golladay’s case, separation isn’t always a necessity.
The ascending Lions star has established himself as the league’s premier jump-ball dominator. By combining size, physicality, focus, and body control, Golladay has showed a consistent ability to go up high and muscle the ball away from opponents―often when he’s twisting and contorting in the air.
More than a third of Golladay’s targets in 2019 were contested-catch situations, per Pro Football Focus (36.3 percent), and he caught 26 of those 41 passes to notch the fourth-highest catch rate (63.4 percent) among qualifying receivers. In 2018, Golladay caught 17-of-30 contested-pass attempts for a league-high 334 receiving yards. The Detroit playmaker lives above the rim, and he’s lucky to be paired with a quarterback like Matt Stafford who’s not afraid to throw it up and let him come down with it.
Runners-up: Golladay held off a strong group of contenders in this category, including DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans.
Deep-Ball Tracking: Bills WR Stefon Diggs
Diggs (who also made a claim for the Craftiest Route Runner title) cemented himself last season as the league’s most dangerous deep-ball receiver. The then-Vikings pass catcher tied for the league lead in receptions of 20-plus yards, per PFF, racking up 635 yards on those throws (first) while scoring six touchdowns (also first). Diggs possesses the speed that’s necessary to threaten defenses downfield, but also showed an uncanny ability to track the ball in flight, create separation at the last second, and pluck the ball from the air.
Diggs did benefit from a strong deep-pass connection with Kirk Cousins, of course, given that Cousins is an accurate and aggressive thrower down the field. Diggs, 26, lost that advantage when he moved to Buffalo, where he will face the challenge of getting on the same page with Josh Allen. Allen, who has a big arm and an aggressive mindset, was wildly inaccurate throwing deep in 2019—but he didn’t have Diggs running routes downfield. We’ll see how big of a difference the former Minnesota star can make.
Runners-up: Golladay got consideration in this category as well, as did the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, the Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett, and the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill.
Open-Field Tackle Breaking: 49ers TE George Kittle
As Kittle recounted to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, on one fateful day in 2017, his coach Jon Embree told the big tight end to stop running out of bounds and to run through people. So, Kittle took that advice to heart and―and, well, I guess the rest is history. Kittle has racked up 39 broken tackles in the past two seasons combined and totaled an absurd 790 receiving yards after contact, most among all players by 95 yards. One-third of his total receiving yards in the past two years has come after contact. He is, to put it in simple terms, a runaway beer truck in the open field.
Kittle is a force to be reckoned with when the ball is in his hands. He’s explosive and fluid in his movements, capable of taking a pass and quickly turning it upfield for extra yards or juking smaller, more nimble defenders out of their socks. And he’s incredibly powerful as a runner, always looking to bury opponents with stiff arms or to run right through them.
Runners-up: Giants receiver Golden Tate has been my pick in this category for the past few years, but it’s safe to say he’s been replaced by Kittle. The 49ers star will have to watch his back, though, with sophomore pass catchers A.J. Brown and (his teammate) Deebo Samuel eyeing the title.
Pass Blocking: Packers OT David Bakhtiari
When Joe Thomas’s 2018 retirement created a vacancy in this category, Bakhtiari quickly filled it. The Packers’ blindside protector has established his bona fides in the past four seasons, finishing first in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking grade in 2016, 2017, and in 2018 before falling, ever so slightly, to second in 2019. (Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley finished first.)
The 28-year-old veteran has surrendered just nine sacks in 2,412 pass-blocking snaps in that four-year stretch. He’s also missed just four games. He’s the picture of reliability at one of the most important positions in the sport.
Runners-up: Stanley is clearly making a push for Bakhtiari’s title but doesn’t have the track record quite yet to stake the claim. Trent Williams, the 49ers’ newly minted left tackle, has a chance to put himself back in the race, too, after missing all of the 2019 season.
Instinctive Defending: Buccaneers LB Lavonte David
Luke Kuechly was the poster boy for this category for basically his entire career, but his retirement during the offseason opens the door for a handful of talented contenders. The title of most instinctive is a little more subjective and abstract than some of the others on this list―and that makes it difficult to simply look at statistics or accolades when determining the winner. But David’s tape―which shows the combination of incredible play-recognition skills, anticipation, and spacial awareness―makes the underrated Buccaneers star the choice here.
Of course, David has the stats to back up the eye test, too. The two-time All-Pro linebacker notched 123 tackles in 2019, including 10 for a loss, and finished third among all players in 2019 in total stops (defined as tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense), per PFF. He tied for the league lead among linebackers in forced fumbles (three). And he ranked first at his position in PFF’s pass coverage grade―a testament to his uncanny ability to almost instantly read and react to opposing schemes and jump into passing lanes.
Runners-up: There’s only one other player I seriously considered for this category: Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Unblockable Pass Rushing: Rams DT Aaron Donald
This one’s a layup. Donald is easily the most dominant pass rusher in the NFL and has a claim as the best overall player in football. The über-disruptive defensive tackle is in a league of his own as an interior pass rusher and outpaced the league’s top defensive ends and outside linebackers in pressure numbers during the past three seasons, notching an incredible 277 pressures in 2017, 2018, and 2019 combined—53 more than any other player. Donald has done all this despite being regularly double- and triple-teamed on the interior.
Runners-up: This one was no contest for Donald but if he abruptly retired, edge rushers like Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Joey and Nick Bosa, and Chandler Jones would all be in the running.